- Posted By: Ken Kwok
- Posted On: 7:58 a.m. | May 30, 2014
It was seemingly another ordinary day in the life of photographer Charles O’Rear, who happened to be cruising along Highway 121 in bucolic Napa Valley on the way to see his girlfriend. It was January 1998 and the rains had just passed through a few days earlier. Spread out before him was an emerald green hill beset with cotton-like clouds set against a backdrop of a brilliant blue sky.
Like any good photographer would do, O’Rear pulled over and with his Mamiya RZ67, cranked out four frames. He got back in the truck and kept going, never really giving the idyllic scene much thought. A few years later, Microsoft called wanting all rights to the photo and the rest, as they say, is history.
That photo became “Bliss,” the ubiquitous Windows XP default wallpaper photo that has been called one of the most viewed photos in the world. It is estimated that more than 1 billion people have seen the photo since Microsoft introduced XP in 2001. As the software giant prepares to phase out its seminal operating system, we chatted with O’Rear and talked about his road to “Bliss” that spans 50 years as a photographer that has included working for newspapers, traveling the world on assignment for National Geographic, shooting high-end stock and producing several books on wine.
Photographer Charles “Chuck” O’Rear
Q: How did you get started in photography?
My interest in newspapers began at age 14 when I covered sports for a daily paper in Missouri. I bought a camera at 16 and taught myself photography. After college and a stint at the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, I was hired at the Kansas City Star where I became a feature writer and photographer. The Star was one of America’s great newspapers and within a couple of years I was offered company stock and received generous pay raises. The Star sent me to spend a week with an L A Times magazine photographer because the paper was starting a Sunday magazine. After returning to Kansas City I realized the need to get my young disabled son into a school system which was not available there. I applied and at age 25 was hired by the LA Times as a staff photographer.
Q: Back then, a job at The Times was akin to laying down in a “velvet-lined coffin,” i.e.; a pretty sweet gig. What motivated you to leave the relative safety of that and venture into the challenging world of freelance?
At The Times, I was reminded that my coffin would be lined with velvet if I stayed long enough. I didn’t like the idea of velvet, and my frequent suggestions for story ideas fell on deaf ears so I left the paper after two years. The first day after leaving that job I was on a chartered plane headed to Mexico City with the U.S. Olympic team. A couple of years later National Geographic liked a story proposal I had submitted and that began my 25 years with the magazine. I have been told that I held a record at National Geographic for proposals submitted and accepted as stories at the magazine.
Q: How did you get your foot in the door at Geographic and eventually come to settle on shooting wine?
Often I say, “I knocked on the door of National Geographic until the door fell in and they had to hire me.” I studied the magazine and knew it well, so my story suggestions were new and fresh. During the ’70s I heard about Napa Valley, which was all about wine. I knew the top editors had interest in wines, so I submitted a proposal and was dispatched to the valley and, suddenly, I became a wine expert. During those years I circled the globe for numerous magazine assignments and realized that Napa Valley had everything to offer – weather, food, scenery, people and a small-town lifestyle with a big town sophistication. So, I made it home and for the last 25 years have produced, photographed and published 12 books about wine and wine regions.
Hot air balloon over Napa Valley vineyard, published in National Geographic, 1978.
Q: Tell me about how you made the picture that became “Bliss.” Did you have any idea that you had had a special photo that would be seen the world over?
In 1998, I drove regularly from my home to Marin County (near San Francisco) to spend the weekend with my girlfriend (now my wife for the past 13 years. The route took me past the gently rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma counties. I always had cameras with me and on this January day in 1998, shortly after rains had cleared and clear skies appeared, I saw and photographed the scene which became “Bliss.” I had no idea it would become famous.
Q: What was the process like when you found out that Microsoft was interested in buying the photo? Did they ever tell you how it would be used? How did you find out?
My photos were part of a stock photo agency, Westlight, which I co-founded in 1982 with photographer Craig Aurness. The photo, which became “Bliss,” was scanned into our system, and a year later Westlight was bought by Corbis. In 2001, Microsoft went to Corbis looking for a photograph for their new Windows XP. I was told by Corbis that it would become a screen saver although I’m sure Microsoft engineers considered many photos, but apparently mine got the lucky draw. Back then I believe few people realized how widespread Windows XP would become, nor that it would be around 13 years later. Corbis contacted me and asked for the original, which had been shot on Fuji Velvia, the most intense color positive film at the time. Federal Express wouldn’t deliver such a valuable product, so Corbis flew me to Seattle to hand deliver the photo.
A few years later I was contacted by Microsoft and asked where the photo was made, that the engineers were in a contest to decide the location. Most of them thought it was Photoshopped, while others thought it was made in the Palouse region of east Washington. “Sorry folks,” I said, “it was near my home here in Napa Valley. And, it’s the real deal – no Photoshopping!”
Q: Everyone is dying to know but I’m sure that you aren’t at liberty to say how much you were compensated for “Bliss.” Were the terms of the sale what you had hoped for? If you had to do it all over again would you have handled the deal differently?
Terms of the sale were absolutely fine and, if we did it again, I’d be pleased with the same agreement.
Q: The colors and clarity of “Bliss” are brilliant and I’m assuming that it was shot on film. Once it was turned over to Microsoft, was it ever manipulated or is what we see on the Windows XP wallpaper pretty much what you saw that day?
The “Bliss” on Windows XP is pretty much the same as my original photo, so what you see is the “real deal.” CRT monitors of 2001 did not have brilliant colors so it is possible Microsoft intensified colors slightly and perhaps moved a cloud or two. I learned recently that the year before I made the photo, a government agriculture employee fertilized and seeded that particular piece of land to prevent erosion. That, along with Velvia film, probably accounted for the brilliant green.
Vineyard and stars.
Q: How has the stock industry evolved over the years? What advice would you give somebody wanting to branch out into stock photography?
In the late ’70s I realized my outtakes from National Geographic assignments were resting in a closet. Stock photography was thought of as the stepchild to “serious” photography and no “real” photographer would lower themselves to be involved. Along came the brilliant man, Craig Aurness, and together we formed our own agency which we later named “Westlight.” Through the ’80s and ’90s Westlight became one of America’s top stock photo agencies. At the peak in early ’90s, Westlight employed 60 people.
Stock photography is suffering, much like all of publishing and visual arts. Smartphone cameras with up to 41mp are replacing photography as we have known it. Successful photography in the publishing world in the past usually meant having the best cameras and being at the right place at the right time. With smartphones, somebody is always at the right place at the right time and in the digital world high resolution is not important. Is stock photography dead? As we have known it, yes. However, creative minds will find a way to make the next great photo.
Q: You’ve had a pretty good ride so far with over 50 years in the business. On top of ‘Bliss’ you’ve shot for Geographic for a quarter of a century and have an impressive archive of stock and a dozen books on wine. It appears that you’ve always followed your passion and done things your way. How does one make that happen?
Doing things “my way” was not always the solution. It was a formula of work, determination, cooperation, curiosity, and, oh yes, knowing how to use a camera. Hidden somewhere is some talent – a little artist, a little photojournalist, but mostly a desire to document the world.
Q: “Bliss” will undoubtedly be an image that will be a large part of your legacy, possibly eclipsing your other accomplishments. Are you OK with that?
I won’t have a tombstone but, if I did, I had imagined my work at National Geographic would be cited. Now, it looks like “Bliss” would be the highlight of my career.
Red moon desert, Kalahari Desert of South Africa.
Q: Anything else to add?
In addition to “Bliss” I have another photo which is/was available on Windows XP as an alternate screen saver. It is “Red Moon Desert,” which Microsoft obtained from Corbis. I shot it in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa.
To see a video produced by Microsoft about the iconic “Bliss” photo, click here.